February 3, 2023

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The man who astonished Darwin

Alfred Russel Wallace (TV) played an important role in Charles Darwin’s (the) journey towards the theory of evolution.

Charles Darwin is considered the father of evolutionary biology. But without Alfred Russel Wallace, things could have been different.

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Charles Darwin was stunned. In the spring of 1858 he sat with a manuscript on his lap. It arrived by mail from a ragged corner of the Southeast Asian island kingdom and was signed by Alfred Russell Wallace, an insect collector he barely knew.

In recent decades, it has become increasingly clear that life on Earth has evolved. But exactly how this happened was not clear. Darwin found the solution – evolution by natural selection – and among other tasks he wrote a major work. But he only talked about it with those close to him.

Now Darwin was sitting with an essay ready for print in which his king’s thought was elegantly explained across twelve pages and a cover letter in which the author asked Wallace what he thought of the theory.

Who was Wallace?

Who on earth was this Wallace? Darwin didn’t know much about him – and many still don’t. Today marks 200 years since the birth of Alfred Russel Wallace.

He came from a poor background, and as a teenager worked as a temporary laborer long enough to get a place on a ship bound for Brazil. After four years in the Amazon, collecting insects and birds for European museums and collectors, he traveled to Southeast Asia.

Wallace became one of the first travelers in Europe. He rowed with the indigenous people of the Amazon, and lived among them Bounty hunters In Borneo, I walked barefoot in the jungle and was for a while the only European in New Guinea.

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The way he traveled brought him close to the locals. And he was intrigued: “The more uncivilized peoples I see, the better I think of human nature, and all the important differences between civilized and savage seem to disappear,” he wrote in Home.

The manuscript he sent to Darwin was allegedly the result of a sudden whim. But it is not so simple. Wallace had been working on this issue for many years and saw it as almost a life’s work to solve the puzzle of evolution.

In the Amazon, it was found that related species often live on both sides of large rivers. If all the animals and plants of the planet had been created individually, they would have been scattered arbitrarily over the Earth. But that was not the case. Red tit and blue tit do not live at opposite ends of the globe, as do red deer and red deer.

Wallace has written many articles on the matter and believes it must be almost a law of nature that related species constantly live near each other. He said that kinship is a common origin.

Unknown insect collector

However, the articles were not read by many. He was just an unknown insect collector. Darwin didn’t pay much attention to them. The message from England was that Wallace should use his time to gather and not engage in airy speculation. But he did not leave her. He already had many details in place. It was supposed to be a complete book, but the Rosetta Stone is missing: How can one species become another?

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February 1858 He lived in a shed in the jungle on an island in western New Guinea. It was pouring rain, the roof was leaking, and he himself was lying on the floor from malaria. Between bouts of fever, they suddenly understood: All species produce many offspring. But it cannot be completely random which individuals survive and continue the family.

Traits that benefit survival will become more common, while those that are a hindrance will disappear. This is how new species can form. He sat down and wrote what became the first paper in history on evolution by natural selection.

Darwin declared in desperation: “I have lost all my originality.” In the same week, his son became seriously ill. The year 1858 must have been the worst year of his life. It was friends who saved it – they knew he had been working on the idea for a long time. Wallace’s paper and a provisional summary of Darwin’s work were presented at a meeting in London shortly thereafter.

Thus an explanation of the history of life on this planet was born. None of the main characters were present. Wallace was in New Guinea unaware of the commotion he had caused. Darwin stood in the cemetery and buried his youngest son.

Newton of Biology

A year and a half later, On the Origin of Species was published, which examined in detail the implications for selection theory. Wallace was overwhelmed when he received the book. This was what he painted himself, worked out to the smallest detail. He enthusiastically wrote to his friends: “Darwin is the Newton of biology.”

Wallace did not return home from Southeast Asia until several years later. He became one of the most productive scientists in Europe and played a major role in the further development of the theory of evolution.

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Darwin and Wallace actually created a new science – biology. For knowledge becomes science only when the details can be grouped into a unified construction of thought. At the same time, Wallace was increasingly drawn into social debate.

While many have used Darwin’s theory to legitimize the “right of the fittest,” Wallace believed that human nature was primarily about cooperation. Not only did humans domesticate animals and crops — they also domesticated each other. Thus, species have taken on a form that could change the framework of the Earth’s ecosystems.

Brotherhood among people

Wallace predicted the ecological crisis and the Anthropocene and believed that evolution in man proceeds as moral maturity. Evolution and moral growth are essentially two sides of the same thing. He became a strong critic of British colonialism and a strong advocate for the idea of ​​equality and fighting causes such as nature conservation, prison reform, and feminism.

He wrote more than 800 articles and 22 books until his death in 1913 and was very prolific to the end. His list of publications last summer included a defense of Darwinism, a protest against the imprisonment of Emmeline Pankhurst, an essay against vaccination, a text on the origin of the soul, and a discussion paper on the nationalization of land ownership.

Evolution is often associated with life’s relentless struggle for existence. But Alfred Russel Wallace showed that natural selection could also legitimize cooperation and brotherhood among humans. It resulted in a philosophy of evolution that is both original and surprising, and which can still be read today, four generations later, with great benefit.